The Coming of the Kingdom, Heaven, and All That

I'm the kind of person who likes order, but has a difficult time creating it for myself (ergo the lack of a completed dissertation on my desk...). In my prayer life, this means trying with mixed success to keep my prayer regular, and I've found that one way that helps is by turning to the Liturgy of the Hours, and praying morning and evening prayer. (Plus, my radical soul takes pleasure in re-claiming this "prayer of the church" for all of us, not only for the ordained required by canon law to pray in this way.)

The texts have their ups and downs; I find myself often mumbling through or adding to prayers for "our brothers", or doing some almost-but-not-quite-Lutheran theological reflection on all Christians' participation in the priesthood of Christ. Praying the psalms is an ancient Christian practice, and the rhythm of a day that begins with the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and ends with the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) helps to put me on the lookout for God's work in the world during the day; almost the equivalent of church bells or a zen chime, but in words.

You also find some really good stuff sometimes in the intercessions or collects, which are the same collects used at mass those days; this past Tuesday (we're in Week II, if you want to check yourself or look into praying the Liturgy of the Hours with the help of the Liturgy of the Hours Apostolate...download it to your PDA!), the closing collect read as follows:

Lord Jesus Christ,
true light of the world,
you guide all mankind to salvation.
Give us the courage, strength and grace
to build a world of justice and peace,
ready for the coming of that kingdom,
where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, at a quick read (and most of us, clergy or laity, at mass or at home in our rooms, far too easily give these things a quick read), this is just the same old stuff...strength and grace, justice and peace, yadda yadda yadda, one God, for ever and ever, etc. But I was lucky to actually stop short and pay attention the other morning at how well this prayer expresses the Christian idea of the relationship between our work for justice and the coming of God's reign.

Some of the most easily misunderstood and/or confusable concepts among most Christians are "heaven", "kingdom of God", "building the kingdom", etc. More than anyone else, N.T. Wright's work, especially the most recent installment of his "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series, The Resurrection of the Son of God, has helped me to reach a little more clarity on what the biblical authors and early Christians meant by resurrection, and meant by the "coming of the kingdom." By itself, it's a great antidote to the popular Pelagianism/Arminianism (pick your heresy!) by which we all are very concerned about "getting to heaven". In Wright's views, and those of others who have looked critically at eschatology, one important aspect of Christian belief in the resurrection is the idea that the reign of God is this-worldly, not other-worldly. Now stop and read that again. The reign of God isn't on a fluffy cloud somewhere, but is meant to be here; we're meant to return to a situation in which the world is God's carefully planned garden, and we walk with God in the evenings...

Now, your next question might be, "wait a minute, that sounds a lot like modern western liberal utopias, that are trying to take God out of the picture and make Christianity only about building a just world. If that's the case, we've already tried that, and it didn't go so well, either for liberal Protestantism or for secular utopianism." That's where the theology hinted at in this prayer pops in with another warning. It really is supposed to be a reign that God brings into play, not us. Pace Dan Schutte's hymn "City of God", we don't build it, God does, and the language of the book of revelation about the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven might be a good reminder that if we start building our own cities of God, they're liable to get crushed. But this can't be a recipe for quietism either, for taking an ethical time-out and waiting for God to come in. As Tuesday's collect says, we're "to build a world of justice and peace, ready for the coming of that kingdom..." (emphasis added) To go back to the imagery of the New Jerusalem descending to the earth, our job isn't to build the reign of God, but it is to clear a space, a landing pad, as it were, so that the reign of God doesn't crush anyone underneath, and so that creation, especially we who help steward creation, is ready for it.

Why do we work for justice and peace? If we think that it's because we're suddenly going to rise above our own failings and those of all around us and finally make a world of justice and peace for ourselves, the Christian tradition says that we're going to be sadly disappointed. For a microcosm of this experience, talk to a burned-out social worker or pastoral minister. But if we think that our job is to help get people ready for that kingdom, to tell people what's coming and how they can join the workcrew clearing away some of the underbrush, then we might begin to have the strength to keep getting up everyday and working towards that world. As the prayer says, that requires courage, strength, grace...but it's a hell of a lot easier than requiring us to be God.


David said...

How we each of us find our way to prayer and what helps us on a day to day basis is a topic of not enough conversation, virtual or otherwise. Thank you for your testimony to the helpfulness of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Even after years of experience, the shifts and ranges of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer can sometimes be too much for me. Occasionally I find Night Prayer the surest way to hear simple words that touch me, bringing my heart back to itself after the variety and richness of a day's activities.

Best of luck settling into your new Harvard space.

Nate said...

For the Anglican Morning and Evening prayer, see http://www.missionstclare.com/.

English and Spanish versions avaliable.